CBS has a show lined up for the summer called The Briefcase. In it, a “lucky” poor family is given—BINGO—a briefcase with $101,000 in it and told they can keep it all or give some or all of it away to a “needier” family. Then, their agonizing struggle is filmed for our gross-o-tainment! But bear with me: I bet this show will be riveting, and maybe even a good thing.
As many outlets have reported, The Briefcase is a shitshow of bad taste, manipulation, and voyeurism at the direct expense of those who need the most no-strings-attached help. Katie Rife at the AV Club notes how crass and manipulative it is. Teresa Jusino at The Mary Sue calls it an exercise in horrible taste. And they appear to be right. It’s not as if these families are just given all that money and left to contemplate their absurd set of choices in peace, nosirree. The show slaps a big string on that briefcase and violently tugs it along with our deepest collective moral outrage toward a swamp filled with alligators, airbrushed T-shirts and bad processed meats.
Over the next 72 hours, each family is then bombarded with details about the hardships another family is going through, sprinkled with a bit of Wife Swap-style stereotype baiting—one episode will pair up a married lesbian couple with a family of gun-toting Christian conservatives from Texas, for example—all while presumably being coached on the importance of selflessness off camera.
But that’s not even the worst part! After the family goes through all the possible feelings—the elation of getting the money, the subsequent sense of relief that some of their problems will finally at long last be solved, the fresh burden of philanthropic obligation, the struggle to decide how “good” they ought to be with the desperate recognition of how much they could really use the money—after all this, they are presented with what you might call a cruel, next-level kind of fuckery. You know, the kind that makes for excellent TV watchin’?
That’s right. The other family they were given those details about and slowly grew more or less empathic toward, also got a briefcase with $101,000 in it and also had to make the same agonizing choice about the money and also got details on the other family. Then both families meet and must confront their choices and each other.
Worst case scenario—other than that we all die together because the world has finally reached maximum ludicrousness—is that the first family decides to give all the money away while the other decides to keep all their money, thus netting one family zero dollars and the other family $202,000? Maybe all families will decide to give the other all the money, thus simply exchanging the money? That would really show CBS!
Do I even need to mention here that the show’s creator is Dave Broome? The guy that brought you The Biggest Loser, otherwise known as your personal low-cal hellsnack?
But look: As someone who grew up in a trailer with a single mom who made $12,000 a year raising four kids alone, I kind of can’t wait to watch it anyway. Why? Because even though there’s nothing grosser than the setup described above, there’s something even more disturbing about how people won’t really talk about poverty. When they do, they usually get it wrong. They make a lot of nasty character judgments about people who are poor. They assume it’s their fault. They assume that there is always some combination of math and better choices that would lift these people out of deprivation if they were just, I dunno, better people.
Plus, $101,000 only solves so much after taxes, because poverty is not just a lack of money, it’s a state of mind and lack of many resources that you need education, assistance and a new skill set to get out of. Just like homelessness isn’t just houselessness; it’s often untreated mental illness, estranged families, alcoholism, any number of issues that contribute to that end result.
In other words, even the worst version of The Briefcase will rely on making poverty sympathetic, something we’re in short supply of in the mainstream consciousness. And sometimes you take what you can get, even when it’s delivered in the most hideous of packages, especially when a new study has shown that watching people in embarrassing social situations on reality TV does invoke empathy on the viewer’s part.
Besides, even glimpses of poverty can compel the more affluent. Once, I attended a poverty simulator in Nashville at Vanderbilt University. It was meant to demonstrate to a clearly affluent crowd of college students, many quite literally wearing pearls and cardigans, how insurmountable the circumstances of poverty could really be. To participate, you received a packet of information with your income, job, number of children, various challenges. You walked around to a series of government agencies staffed with workers who’d been given license to be nice or rude, honest or dishonest. And then you tried to pay your bills on time and access social services.
In the midst of trying to make it through all the agencies to stay on the grid, life would happen. A kid would need emergency dental care, or be sick from school, or your car would break down. And as a single mother with, say, only a part time job, no high school diploma, earning $300 a month? Well, let’s just put it this way: You’d be fucked no matter what.
What was depressing to me was reliving what I’d watched my mother do most of my life, struggle to pay this bill or that, to keep the wolf from the door, to make the best choice out of terrible options about where the money would go first to buy some time. There was never enough, so we never came out on top by sheer determination alone—it was a combination of things, like more education, more income, years of social assistance, and often a very generous boyfriend or two.
But what was most enjoyable was watching these mostly very privileged kids experience even a little bit of that frustration in the poverty simulation. If nothing else, they were used to doing well on tests, and this was a game that was rigged from the start no matter how smart they were. They were forced to see that no matter their best intentions, they could do nothing to reroute these circumstances stacked against them.
So absolutely, yes, I’m with you: The Briefcase looks like reality television at its lowest point. But as gross and voyeuristic and crass and awful as it is, I’m hoping that maybe somehow amidst the hideousness of the particulars, that it might show general audiences even a glimpse of the realities of poverty, the life circumstances that can send a stable family who did good math and made good choices into a tailspin of loss. That it can show that these are still decent people, people of every possible demographic, fucked over in just about every way circumstances can fuck you. That’s a small, good thing—especially out of something so clearly terrible. And if anyone who watches it maybe hoping to laugh, only to come away saddened, or the least bit educated, well there aren’t enough briefcases in the world to symbolize the value of that.
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